Fontbonne officials report on Judaic Studies curriculum

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Dr. Dennis Golden, president, and Dr. Nancy Blattner, vice president and dean for academic affairs at Fontbonne University, expressed appreciation to the Jewish community for its ideas and support for the university’s “Dedicated Semester on Judaism and its Cultures,” in remarks at last Tuesday’s council meeting of the Jewish Community Relations Council. About 45 members and friends of the JCRC, the community relations umbrella organization of 19 major Jewish organizations, attended the meeting, which was hosted by Congregation Shaare Zedek in University City.

In his remarks, Golden said that the “core documents” of Fontbonne University speak of the university “as a college rooted in Judaeo-Christian tradition.” Because of that core commitment and the role of the late Pope John Paul II in improving Roman Catholic-Jewish relations and understanding, Fontbonne, a Catholic University in St. Louis, chose “Judaism and its Cultures” as the theme of its first “dedicated semester,” a concentrated selection of courses and lectures on topics with Jewish content, which began with the current semester at the university, which is located at 6800 Wydown Boulevard in Clayton.

Golden said that Fontbonne is rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition “as a source of our intellectual and spiritual heritage, but as some of you may be aware, it is more than that to me, personally, it is a family matter. My maternal grandfather came from Cork, Ireland, and my maternal grandmother came from Genoa, Italy. My Dad’s side of the family was different because both of his parents were Russian Jews from the region of Belarus in the city of Vitebsk.”

Golden recalled, “as a young boy, I remember my grandparents speaking about their alternatives, certain of which were dire to say the least. For them, their destiny was prison, the gulag or the firing squad because of their religious beliefs. The only other alternative was exile, so they left Russia and arrived on Ellis Island. And the rest, as they say, is history. That’s why I’m so thankful for your presence this afternoon.”

At Fontbonne University, Golden continued, “we recognize the commonality of the task of being a blessing to the world. We recognize that the joint Jewish and Christian tradition has been at the center of the best of Western culture, that scholarship itself begins in the quest for the truth of scripture, and the very idea of the university follows from this. We would like to find a way to take up that task that Pope John Paul II identifies as primary — of being ‘first’ a blessing to one another, and we called the beginning of this effort ‘Going to the Well of Origins: Bringing a Jewish Presence to a Catholic University.’ We asked ourselves these essential questions: If we understand Judaism as our elder brother, how can he have an active voice in our intellectual lives at this university? How can we guarantee the kind of dialogue with our older brother that will be a blessing to this faith family and to the world?”

Golden took note of previous Jewish elements in the Fontbonne curriculum. “Our late past president, Sister Mary Alfred Noble was a recipient of the Micah Award (from the American Jewish Committee) for her involvement in Jewish communal causes. Holocaust survivor and National Teacher of the Year, Jay Sommer, delivered our commencement address in 2001. His son, Jason Sommer, serves as our poet in residence, and has taught English for over 20 years. His writing has won him national awards, some specifically for poems on Jewish themes, and he read his work at the U.S. Holocaust Museum.” He added that other Catholic universities have introduced Judaica into their curricula, “and we have been looking for a way that is in keeping with our own unique mission here.”

The full list of 14 courses offered in the Judaism and its Cultures Dedicated Semester in the fall of 2007, include: The Sociology of the Jewish Family; Economic Impact of the Jewish Diaspora; Judaism and the Foundations of American Law; Argumentation and Debate: The Middle Eastern Conflict; Film Studies: Jewish Identity on Screen; Modern Jewish Literature; Graven Image: Visual Art and the Jewish Tradition; Benedictions to Broadway: Jewish Musical Traditions; History of the Middle East; Holocaust, Memory, History and Identity; Hebrew Bible; Contemporary Jewish-Christian Dialogue; History of Jewish/Catholic Relations: From the Gospels Through Hitler; American Culture Studies: The Holocaust and the American Imagination.

“In addition to these courses offered by our academic departments,” Golden continued, “students will have an opportunity to learn about Judaism and its cultures from films, panels, speakers and events, a wide range of co-curricular activities. The entire campus will be learning together — as a community –from the opening academic event of the semester, academic convocation, to our December graduation, whose speaker, David Marwell, is the distinguished head of the Museum of the Jewish Heritage in New York City.”

In her remarks, Dr. Nancy Blattner, Fontbonne’s vice president and dean for academic affairs, indicated that the acclaimed novel, The Chosen by the late Chaim Potok was required reading for students and faculty for the dedicated semester. She added that numerous local rabbis and scholars have contributed to the teaching courses as part of the program.

“We hope to have dedicated semesters to other specific areas of study in the years ahead,” she said.

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